Four Women, a Bunch of Letters, Some Improv & Wine.

I used to write letters, and lots of them. I remember the junior high Erin sitting alone on her bed with a pad of pink paper and a medium tip gel ink rollerball pen (probably in florescent green), carefully crafting her words in cursive across the page. She’d write letters to everyone: notes to pass at school the next day, or to friends who lived in other cities, pen pals (one in France and one in Germany), bands, magazines, records labels, on and on. If your address was listed on the back of an album, or the inside cover of a magazine, you were going to get a letter from me, for sure, signed with a bubbly "o" to dot the “i” and probably a sticker to seal the envelope. As an adolescent growing up in rural Virginia, writing and receiving those letters was essential for my mental health. Not only did it prove to me that there was life beyond the cornfields, but that people knew I was alive! People around the world read my letters, wrote thoughtful responses, and sent them all the way back to me to read in my bedroom. I collected them in a shoebox slid far beneath my bed, and would re-visit them if I was feeling isolated or alone. 

Themes of frustration, isolation, and a need for human interaction are not removed from us as we grow into adulthood. In fact, it can actually intensify, especially for those of us who have moved around, time after time, finding a need to reinvent and re-establish ourselves personally and professionally. Choreographers Katie Drake, of DC, Eliza Larson, of Massachusetts, Rachel Rugh, of Virginia, and Barbara Tait, of Pennsylvania built the Telephone Dance Project (TDP) out of this very basic need of remaining connected to one another, both personally and artistically, even though they are separated by miles. The women used snail-mail to replicate a choreographic game of telephone. They transcribed dance phrases onto paper, mailed them to each other, and then the receiver (who was the next collaborator) interpreted what she read into movement. This continued on and on between the foursome, and the final product, with some variation, will be used to generate an improvisational work that they will each take turns in directing. 

The Telephone Dance Project is Barbara Tait, Katie Drake, Rachel Rugh, and Eliza Larson. Photo by Joy Daivs.

Katie Drake's personal need for creating the Telephone Dance Project was to find a way to collaborate artistically with four woman she felt such kinship to, while forging a path for herself in a dance scene. “Since I was new in the D.C. community (I moved from Chicago shortly before I met these ladies) and it was going to naturally take a while to get integrated into the D.C. community, forming an alliance of other dancers who were also new to their communities seemed natural.  We were also all interested in non-traditional ways of creating dance, which I personally believe is necessary to pushing the art-form forward." Rachel Rugh adds, “Eliza and I met in the Seattle dance scene, then both relocated to the east coast. We were feeling frustrated with the isolation that came with starting over in a new town."

“We’ve all talked about how, with the technology available these days, artists have the capacity to collaborate beyond locational borders,” says Rugh. Barbara Tait adds, “I think there is a lot of potential there to transform the way we work as artists, or maybe just reinforce the ways we're already working."

“It's been really interesting,” says Rugh, ”through the premise of the Telephone Dance Project we've worked with various levels of connectivity-- from the most rudimentary letter writing, to four-way google chats. Exploring the concepts of proximity and distance through movement feels important at this time in history in which technology is becoming increasingly connected yet isolating.” 

“The other result of creating phrases from afar is that you get all of these fabulous ideas from other sources, but you fit them to your own body in your own way,” Drake explains. The project will present, in total, four weekends of shows in four different locals. By the time they join forces in person, they will have juxtaposed material “in four distinct and unique voices to play with. The host determines the structure of the pieces and our known material fills it up.” 

Photo by Joy Davis

“Logistically, this form has allowed each of us to continue working as independent artists in our respective communities,” says Rugh. “In each of our four locations, the resident artist is in charge of coordinating and curating the showing.  So it's been fun to see how each dancer is tapping into our local scene to compliment the unique qualities that are present in our home cities. As a result, just like the movement material is differently interpreted by each dancer, so too the format of each performance has a different flavor and atmosphere. It feels fresh and surprising each time we get together, which makes it an incredibly exciting and interesting process”.

But there is more to the project than just the mash-up described above. The weekend will kick off with an Improvisation Workshop on Friday, March 28th from 6:30-8:30pm at Dance Place taught by members of TDP. Open to all levels of experience, the workshop will introduce participants to some of the improvisational tools that TDP uses to create their long-distance, site-specific works. Participants should register for the workshop early at www.danceplace.org.

On Saturday, March 29th, TDP invites you to join them in the Kogod Courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery as they create an open-to-the-public Site-Specific Dance Experience from 3-4pm. Telephone Dance Project’s Salon-Style Show will happen Saturday night at 7:30pm at Brookland Artspace Lofts, complete with special guests, in an informal setting with dialogue encouraged. You must be on the guest list to enter, but anyone can get on the list by joining the Event on Telephone Dance Project's Facebook page or by emailing Katie Drake at kcsopoci@comcast.net. 

“My goal as a presenter,” says Drake, “was to avoid the traditional dark theater/proscenium stage/you watch, we dance sort of event.  We wanted it to be open, full of dialogue, and in a relaxed atmosphere.  Hence the art-gallery-style party!  Hopefully we'll get some open minds who want to see, discuss, connect with each other about what they see happening in the local dance community, and drink wine.”

Read more about the project and the weekend’s events at www.telephonedanceproject.blogspot.com.